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Kōrero: Tupaia

Whārangi 1: Biography

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High priest, navigator

I tuhia tēnei haurongo e Joan Druett, ā, i tāngia tuatahitia ki Ngā Tāngata Taumata Rau i te 2017.

Tupaia played a pivotal role in mediating between Māori communities and the crew of the Endeavour during Lieutenant James Cook’s first visit to New Zealand in 1769. The ship’s botanist, Joseph Banks, estimated in that year that Tupaia ‘cannot be less than 45’, which indicates he was born in about 1724. This makes him a near contemporary of Cook, who had been born in Yorkshire in 1728. Otherwise, their circumstances were very different.

Early life and the visit of the Dolphin

Unlike Cook, Tupaia was nobly born. His family was one of the élite of Raiatea, in the Society Islands, with extensive landholdings in the north. He was also tall, handsome, strong, athletic and extraordinarily intelligent, all of which qualified him to be one of the select few taught at the greatest marae in all Polynesia, Taputapuatea at Opoa, on Raiatea’s southern coast. After consecration as a tahua, or priest, with star navigation as his speciality, he moved on to a three-year cadetship with the arioi society, an ancient guild of travelling entertainers, graduating as an honoured wayfinder.

In 1757, when Tupaia was probably in his early thirties, this glamorous existence fell apart. Raiatea was invaded by warriors from the neighbouring island of Bora Bora, and he was gravely wounded in battle. He recovered, but three years later was forced to flee to Tahiti, with the mission of saving from the invaders two highly sacred objects: an idol of the god Oro, and the maro ura, a red, feathered loincloth used for the coronation of a supreme chief. Bearing these, he arrived at Papara, in the south, where he was given refuge by the chief Amo and his wife, Purea. 

Here he demonstrated his great talent for survival, becoming Amo’s trusted adviser and the lover of Purea. Soon the high priest of all Tahiti, he was back in a position of privilege when fate intruded yet again with the arrival of the British frigate Dolphin, commanded by Captain Samuel Wallis. It was 19 June 1767, and Tahiti had been discovered by Europeans.

Wallis was in desperate straits. Since 11 April, when the Dolphin had entered the Pacific, the ship had traversed a vast expanse of ocean in a vain search for the ‘Great Southern Continent’. The men had scurvy, which can only be cured by eating fresh vegetables and fruit, so the sight of lush plantations was hailed with delight. For a short while, the Englishmen were able to trade, exchanging nails and spikes for pigs, poultry and fruit. Thieving by locals led to conflict, however, culminating in a full-blooded attack on the ship in Matavai Bay by a fleet of canoes that was countered by a savage broadside of cannon.

While Amo retreated, terrified, Tupaia saw the political advantages of an alliance with the violent strangers. When he and Purea approached the ship, they were welcomed by Captain Wallis, who needed a local monarch to cede the island to Britain to bolster his earlier declaration of possession 'by right of conquest’. There was no such monarch, but Purea had the necessary regal bearing to pass as the ‘Queen of Otaheite’. Advised by the perceptive Tupaia, she played this role to perfection. While trade for provisions proceeded apace, trade in sex was even busier. The seamen wrenched so many nails out of the hull of the ship to pay their girlfriends that the Dolphin was in danger of falling apart. Wallis was forced to make a hasty departure.

For Tupaia, the loss of this influential connection was followed by another disaster. In December 1768 Amo and Purea were attacked by forces led by rival chiefs, Vehiatua and Tutaha, and their armies were vanquished. Tupaia saved his life by changing sides, becoming one of Tutaha’s courtiers.

The Endeavour in the Pacific

Tupaia was therefore in a much humbler position when the Endeavour, commanded by James Cook, arrived on 13 April 1769, so he did not make himself known, even though four of Cook’s crew had sailed on the Dolphin and were aware of his connection with the ‘Queen’. Instead, he accompanied Tutaha on a peacemaking visit to the ship, where Cook took the opportunity to recruit four of the party to the crew. The ship’s roster for 18 April 1769 records that ‘Terrea’ (Tairoa), ‘Nunahoe’ (Nunahau), ‘Tobia Tomita’ (Tupura’a Tamaita) and ‘Tupia, Native of Polinesia’ (Tupaia) had been enlisted as guides and intermediaries, along with Tupaia’s young acolyte ‘Tarheto’ (Taiata), a boy Cook assumed was Tupaia’s servant.    

The intention was that these men would be part of the crew only while the ship was in Tahiti. Attitudes towards Tupaia changed over the next three months, however, as men who had sailed on the Dolphin remembered his importance, and he learned enough English to impart his special knowledge. Not only did he relate mythology and introduce his new friends to the traditions and culture of Tahiti, but he drew compelling artworks to illustrate what he was describing. One particularly important sketch shows the costume of the chief mourner in a funeral ceremony in which Joseph Banks participated, while another is of four Tahitian musicians — the only surviving image of everyday life in Tahiti at the time. 

Sometime during the sojourn, Banks proposed carrying Tupaia to England. Cook was reluctant, knowing that the government would not meet the expense of an exotic guest. Banks, who had a private fortune, volunteered to take financial responsibility. Famously, he wrote, ‘I do not know why I may not keep him as a curiosity, as well as some of my neighbours do lions and tigers at a larger expence than he will probably ever put me to.’1 If Tupaia had suspected this he may have turned down the opportunity, but he agreed to sail and to take Taiata with him. For the Europeans, it was to be a godsend. For Tupaia and Taiata, it proved to be tragic.

The leave-taking, on 13 July, was a cause for tears, but after that the voyage seemed to go well. Tupaia navigated a course to Huahine, and from there to Raiatea, where he guided a party, including Banks and Cook, over the great marae, Taputapuatea. There, though the Europeans did not realise it, he saved their lives with fast talk after Banks desecrated a god-house by thrusting his hand inside and groping at the tapa-wrapped god. It was an augury of events in New Zealand. 

Tupaia continued to be useful after leaving Raiatea, as Cook and Banks mined his knowledge for their written accounts. Not only did he describe the Tahitian way of life and draw a picture showing how battles were fought on war canoes, but he also created an iconic map of the Pacific, dictating the names of 74 islands and demonstrating Polynesian wayfinders’ vast knowledge of the ocean.

Tupaia in New Zealand 

As the Endeavour left the tropics, the situation deteriorated. Tupaia urged Cook to sail west, promising him an abundance of islands, but Cook refused and sailed south in conformity with his instructions to search for the ‘Great Southern Continent’. Acutely aware that he had lost his role as a navigator and interpreter of language and custom, Tupaia became depressed and withdrawn. Another conflict developed as Tupaia refused to eat the strange food Cook relied on to prevent scurvy. Consequently, when the east coast of New Zealand was sighted, on 6 October 1769, Tupaia’s advice was not sought, and when a party from the ship went on shore two days later, Tupaia was not included.

The immediate outcome was disastrous. While Cook and Banks, with two other men, were exploring a deserted kaingā (village), marines left to guard the boats shot dead a man who was armed only with a spear. He was Te Maro, of the local Te Aitanga a Hauiti tribe. Recognising his vulnerable position, Cook had the sense to include Tupaia in a shore party next day — which was fortunate, as 50 Rongowhakaata warriors had arrived with the intention of seizing the ship. To their astonishment, Tupaia walked out and introduced himself in a language they understood.

Instead of attacking, the Māori party conferred with this interesting newcomer, raising Cook’s hopes of bartering for fresh water and provisions. It was not the end of difficulties, however. Unlike the Tahitians, the Māori were not interested in trading for nails, being anxious to acquire the magical European guns instead. A fight developed over a cutlass, leading to the shooting of a prominent chief, and in the chaos that followed several fleeing warriors were wounded. Then a botched attempt to kidnap seven fishermen resulted in the death of four of them. Tupaia, with the same diplomacy that had served the Europeans so well in Raiatea, smoothed over the situation, but Cook retreated from this first landfall in a sombre frame of mind.  

Interactions with Māori remained confused. As the Endeavour sailed along the east coast of the North Island, war canoes raced out, their paddlers roaring a challenge to come on shore and fight like men that was countered by Tupaia’s warning that European firepower was fatal. However, after some of the Māori became curious enough to paddle close and talk with Tupaia, the encounters became more friendly. Exchanges of Tahitian tapa cloth for Māori artefacts and seafood inspired Tupaia’s iconic portrait of Banks bargaining for a crayfish. Then, as Tupaia’s high status in Polynesia became recognised, diplomatic overtures were made by local chiefs, enabling anchorage at watering places and surveying points.

On shore, in recognition of his prestige as a Tahitian tahua, Tupaia was greeted as an honoured guest, enfolded in valuable cloaks and entrusted with ancient treasures. Disassociated from the homeland for perhaps 500 years, elders, priests, chiefs and their people welcomed this heaven-sent chance to reclaim their ancient past. Hundreds gathered to hear Tupaia preach, while priests engaged him in religious discussions. As the ship sailed north to the Bay of Islands, Tupaia was welcomed and feted: he was a valued interpreter and mediator for the Māori people, as well as for the Europeans. 

Unfortunately, there were more conflicts between the Endeavour’s crew and local people when Tupaia’s moderating influence was absent. In Mercury Bay, a young man who cheated Lieutenant John Gore of a dogskin cloak was shot dead, while in the Bay of Islands a massed attack on a shore party was prevented only by a warning broadside. The fact that the Endeavour left New Zealand on 31 March 1770 without the loss of a single man can be attributed to Tupaia’s prestige and diplomacy.

Whether the Europeans recognised this is debatable, for once the ship was in the Tasman Sea after taking a final departure from the Marlborough Sounds, Tupaia met with the same indifference that had haunted him before. When Cook and Banks finished their reports of New Zealand and its natives, Tupaia was of no further use to them. His self-respect took another blow when he was unable to communicate with the natives of Botany Bay.

Final days

The problems with shipboard food remained and Tupaia was soon ill with scurvy. He cured himself at the Endeavour River by eating raw fish, but the malady returned once the ship was back at sea and by 10 October, when anchor was dropped at Batavia (Jakarta), he was very sick. Taken ashore by Banks, he was revived by the novelty of the sights, but 18 days later he asked to be moved to the seamen’s camp on Kuyper Island, where he could see the ocean. The death of Taiata on 9 November broke the last of his spirit, and on 11 November 1770 Banks recorded that Tupaia had passed away.

Both Tahitians were buried on the island of Edam, now known as Damar Besar, in a grave that is now lost. Tupaia’s only memorial is an entry in Cook’s journal, dated 26 December 1770: ‘He was a Shrewd Sensible, Ingenious Man, but proud and obstinate which often made his situation on board both disagreable to himself and those about him, and tended much to promote the deceases which put a period to his life.’2

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Quoted in Joan Druett, Tupaia: the remarkable story of Captain Cook’s Polynesian navigator. Auckland, 2011, p. 181 Back
  2. Quoted in Druett, Tupaia, p. 373 Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Joan Druett. 'Tupaia', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2017. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/mi/biographies/6t2/tupaia (accessed 16 July 2024)